Why Classical Music?

Our new HELLO STAGE Blogger Javor Bracic takes on an important question...

We hear the same story over and over again. Orchestras and opera houses are closing. Profits are diminishing. Audiences are growing older and their numbers declining. This must mean classical music is dying.

Let’s take a moment and consider this gloomy scenario. Can we really picture a world in which nobody ever wants to hear Beethoven, Chopin or Verdi anymore? What kind of zombie apocalypse would it take for us to forget about Mozart?

It seems quite blown up to talk about demise in an industry where tickets cost up to a few hundred dollars, and top artists are paid in tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per concert. Nevertheless; many concert presenters and record producers are lucky if they break even. Concert halls are emptier and emptier. Most of the non-superstar musicians often rely on other sources of income and eventually change careers. Where lies the problem?

A partial answer may be found in this famous experiment with Joshua Bell performing undercover in Washington D.C. metro station. Except for a handful aficionados who stopped by to listen, over a thousand commuters passed by without even noticing the renowned player and the magnificent music he played.

Maybe they did not recognize the music? They were probably simply in a rush. They could never have expected a gem like Bach’s Chaconne in a subway stop! But didn’t they realize how well it was played? Or maybe they never heard the Chaconne played badly in the first place.

I believe most of the people today are simply not attuned to great music and what it can do for them. It’s just not on their radar. This may be because of scant funding for arts education, or because of underrepresentation of classical music in the media. But most importantly I believe it’s because there’s a kind of quiet and disengaged miscommunication going on between the musicians and the audience.

If you are a musician, try to put yourself in your listener’s shoes. Imagine you are someone who has taken a year or two of piano lessons as a kid and goes to one or two classical concerts per year. You are forced to sit quietly for more than an hour and wait while the performers do their thing on a far away stage. Then you leave with a sense of emptiness at best, or inferiority at worst. What you have just experienced seemed brilliant and difficult, at times pleasant, but somewhat puzzling. You’ve paid a lot of money for it, so it must have been really good! – but why?

It seems as if there is an air of mystery shrouding the performance of classical music. Performers perpetuate it as it makes them look spectacular, and listeners buy it easily because they can’t do it themselves. This is not to say there is no magic in music – on the contrary, music is probably the most enigmatic human activity. Its magic just resides on a deeper, more mysterious level than most people realize. And the way concerts are presented today is not helping.

I admit: I can’t help feeling that classical music is already in many ways the art of the past. The rules and regulations of tonal music belong to a world of monarchs and court musicians, romantic heroes and idealistic worldviews. It is the music from a world without movie theaters, radio, or TV, not to mention YouTube. Push a couple of piano keys and you get only a couple of sounds. Do a quick Google search and you get millions of words, pictures, and flashy videos. At a glance, classical music just doesn’t compare, even if we all agree there is universal beauty in it.

That’s why we can’t just give it a glance. We need to go deeper and converse with our audience. Allow them to speak and ask us questions. Even ask them questions! Don’t give them finished answers! You’d be surprised at what kinds of interesting thoughts they will share – ranging from silly to brilliant. The times are over when musicians could just walk up on stage, perform, and leave. Even giving a lecture-recital is a thing of the past because it serves to further separate the “erudite” musician from the “commoners” in the audience.

Enough with the presumptuous elevation of the musician above the audience, or even worse, above the music! Talent is overrated! And yes, even if we musicians are admirable because we spend hours and hours painstakingly learning difficult pieces and perfecting our technique, in the end we are here to do a service – to do service to the music which cannot exist without us, and a service to the listeners who don’t have the time, expertise, or privilege to be able to do what we do.

And yes, I agree that music speaks for itself. In an ideal world. But in today’s world, we need to engage the audience thoughtfully. The Joshua Bell experiment ultimately failed, because it was set out to place great music in an environment which was not conducive to it. We need to place music back into smaller, intimate salons where it belongs, and where a dialogue can be established. A dialogue between equals in search of a common answer to the question: Why do we still play and listen to this marvelous music that has been written centuries ago?

The Croatian pianist Javor Bracic is the first prize winner of international piano competitions in Italy, Croatia and Belgium. He gave a critically acclaimed solo recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall presented by New York Concert Artists. His first CD album Tribute to Haydn was released by Labor Records, and his performance was broadcast on WQXR. He was invited to give recitals and perform at festivals and conferences throughout the USA, Europe, China, and South Africa. Javor has given a series of concerts for the humanitarian organization "Yehudi Menuhin's Live Music Now" which brings music to nursing homes and hospitals. He has also given a series of conversation- recitals under the title the Art of Listening aimed at promoting the interest in and understanding of classical music. Javor has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Mozarteum in Salzburg, as well as a Professional Studies Diploma from Mannes College in New York. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Musical Arts at the City University of New York, studying with Ursula Oppens and Richard Goode.
Author: Javor Bracic
Comments [1]
merve gunes - 2015-08-22 16:58
This is great! I've studied about audience development a little at university. Now, I'm trying to improve some of my own methods. It's nice to hear the similar statement from a musician (:
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